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STEM Education That Works

INDIANAPOLIS, June 14, 2013 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- STEM Education that Works

William J. Bennett*

Just about twice a year the general population puts its focus on our nation's education system—when school begins in the fall, and around this time, during commencement season. It's a good time to talk about what works and what does not in a system almost everybody has or will have some experience with.

When I was Secretary of Education back in the 1980s, I put out a report, American Education: Making it Work. What is interesting to me now, 25 years since, is that what our research found back then is still true—little has changed in how we need to reform our elementary and secondary education system. Reforms like strengthening content, ensuring equal intellectual opportunities, establishing an ethos of achievement, rewarding good teachers and principals, and instituting better accountability are still the keys to energizing our underperforming education system. And yet in too many places we cannot seem to take these steps. As a consequence, we spend about 600 billion dollars on k-12 education in this country per year, but our scores and achievement levels remain basically flat from year to year and from decade to decade.

According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, better known as "The Nation's Report Card," nearly 20 percent of our nation's fourth graders still score below basic (a failing grade) in mathematics, while nearly 30 percent of our nation's eighth graders and over 35 percent of our nation's high school seniors score below basic. In science, nearly 30 percent of fourth graders, 35 percent of our nation's eighth graders, and 40 percent of our nation's high school seniors receive failing grades. Note the irony: In science and mathematics, the longer one stays in school, the worse the achievement levels result.

The problem is not just academic or teacher-driven, it's equally inspiration and student-driven. Thus, especially today, our children and our schools—our country—need all the help they can get. This is why we need first-rate outside organizations that can make big differences in the classroom teaching of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) disciplines. One such organization I am affiliated with is Project Lead The Way (PLTW). By training teachers and developing STEM curriculum, PLTW is changing entire school cultures as well as children's lives, even in the seemingly most difficult of places.

Take Toppenish High School in the state of Washington. It's a school with a majority-minority population and a nearly 100 percent free and reduced lunch program student population. But listen to the school's principal, Trevor Greene, tell his story. It is the very engineering and biomedical sciences program of PLTW that has made his school a success. The demand inside the school tells the tale. Toppenish started its experiment with just a handful of engineering classes at the high school level. Today, there are almost 30 engineering classes at Toppenish, a school many would otherwise normally not spend too much time thinking about given its challenges.

Making engineering and math and science relevant to students is exactly what organizations like PLTW do well, though. The teachers involved can see how the subject matters and hands-on projects light up their students eyes, while the students are inspired not only by the relevancy but by the rigor and career opportunities they can see coming from such hands-on academic work. One student at Toppenish put it this way: "As a sophomore I didn't want to go to school…Project Lead The Way influenced me to...go to school and do a career. It's something that I love doing."

Last year, Trevor Greene was named National High School Principal of the year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), for "help[ing] a rural, high-poverty school overcome the odds." The NASSP press release states that "Thanks to Greene's encouragement, participation in rigorous STEM courses skyrocketed, the school's dropout rate decreased, and state science scores increased by 67% over a three-year period." Greene thanks PLTW.

The Trevor Greene and Toppenish story is unique but not isolated. PLTW operates in thousands of schools across the nation, including public and private schools, low- and high-income areas; and each has a number of success stories from students and teachers inspired about new subjects and ways of thinking, teaching, and learning.

My new book, Is College Worth It?, has many criticisms of the post-secondary education system in America. One of these is how colleges and universities have decreased their emphasis on important and practical fields of study like STEM. But our higher education system is not alone in deserving blame. They have to spend a lot of time and money providing remedial education to students who received poor preparation at the K-12 level. All of these critiques of our elementary, secondary, and post-secondary systems are important. But so are the successes which I also point out, because, in the end, there are a lot of concerted efforts at school reform that do, in fact, work. It can happen classroom by classroom, school by school, district by district—not just through national comprehensive, one-size-fits all reform.

If we are going to remain a first rate country—in everything from health care to national defense, from technological advancement to employment opportunities—we have a long way to go. We simply cannot continue on the path of mediocrity we have coasted on for so long.

So, if we want to move from theories and ideas to facts and results that improve American education, schools like Toppenish, organizations like PLTW, and principals like Greene show us how. We simply need to point such successes out, highlight them, and show that the possible can be proven by the actual.

*William J. Bennett is the former US Secretary of Education, a Senior Advisor to Project Lead The Way, and, most recently, the author (with David Wilezol) of Is College Worth It.

CONTACT: Jennifer Cahill Director of Communications Project Lead The Way jcahill@pltw.org

Source: Project Lead the Way (PLTW)